Stress of dealing with flooding can be overwhelming to farmers

April 19, 2019

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NOTE: In light of the recent Midwest floods, this is the second in a series of safe flood recovery stories to assist people in their recovery efforts.
Nebraska’s farmers had more than enough stress to manage before this year’s flooding events ravaged a huge swath of farm properties, businesses and communities. Now the uncertainty farmers face in crop and livestock operations may seem overwhelming.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Nebraska Extension want farmers and their communities to know "You are not alone. We care about you!" and help is just a call - or even a text - away.
"We know it’s sometimes difficult to talk about the stress we experience," said Susan Harris-Broomfield, Nebraska Extension Educator - Rural Health, Wellness and Safety. "Reaching out can be as simple as texting ‘GO’ to 741741 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line. It’s free, and there’s 24/7 support to crisis counselors."
The initial effects of the March 14 collapse of the Spencer Dam were traumatic enough, wiping out bridges, roads, buildings and animals. But, the effects of that catastrophic event will greatly intensify the stress farmers and farm communities will undergo for years to come.
The Life Change Index is a scale that rates the impact individuals experience with different life changes. Sudden change has a physical, emotional and psychological effect on our body. It reorders important routines, sending our physical being into turmoil and resulting in significant stress.
"Cortisol is our built-in ‘fight-or-flight’ alarm system, our body’s main stress hormone," Harris-Broomfield said. "It works in conjunction with our brain to control mood, motivation and fear. When it’s at normal levels, it aids a number of body functions. But when stress remains and we continue to overproduce cortisol, it has significant damaging effects."
Excess levels of cortisol can disrupt normal body functions, leading to anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, digestive problems, insomnia and weight gain.
"When cortisol levels remain high, it can increase blood sugar levels, putting a strain on your pancreas," Harris-Broomfield said. "It can suppress your immune system and cause high blood pressure, setting the stage for a heart attack or stroke."
While cortisol wreaks havoc with important body functions, emotional and psychological functions also suffer. The effects that prolonged stress has on our brain may not be highly visible in the early stages of a stressful event. However, over a period of time, the effect of mental stress can lead to depression, anxiety and personality disorders.
"While we sleep, our brain flushes out harmful toxins that build up there each day," Harris-Broomfield said. "A good night’s sleep boosts memory, concentration and learning. Someone constantly under major stress is losing the benefits sleep provides."
When stress is prolonged, people can become physically exhausted, experience forgetfulness and high levels of anxiety. A person who was typically well-balanced, friendly and outgoing may find they lose their sense of humor, desire to isolate themselves from others and develop a negative outlook on life.
"If the stress continues, it becomes a downward spiral that individuals can’t pull themselves out of unless they have help to do that," Harris-Broomfield said.
"Active listening" is the approach Harris-Broomfield recommends for family members and friends of those under stress. Active listening techniques include demonstrating concern, gathering information to help you understand, giving nonverbal cues such as nodding and leaning forward, and restating what you heard in your own words.
"Listen without judgment," Harris-Broomfield said. "If you see any sign that suggests a person may be considering suicide, just ask them, "Are you having thoughts of suicide?"
Warning signs of suicide include someone threatening to hurt or kill himself/herself; talking about wanting to die, especially if someone is wielding a weapon and intending to harm himself/herself with it.
Additional signals include talk of feeling hopeless or being a burden, giving away possessions, using alcohol or drugs excessively, acquiring a firearm and having questions about insurance in the event of a death. These signs should be especially concerning if these kinds of actions are out of the ordinary for that person.
"A lot of people are shocked if you ask them whether or not they’re considering suicide, but often, if they are, they will answer yes," Harris-Broomfield saif. "Don’t worry that you’re putting the idea in their head. Just ask. If they answer ‘yes,’ don’t leave them alone. Immediately call or text someone for help. It’s very helpful to have hotline phone numbers in your phone, so they’re readily available if you need them."
Harris-Broomfield emphasized that all available extension resources for Nebraska farmers, ranchers and their families are free.
"We’re rolling out a new webinar for farm and ranch families," she said.
Nebraska Extension Educators Glennis McClure and Brandy VanDeWalle will present "Wellness in Tough Times," a free webinar that will provide strategies for dealing with the stress of farming or ranching in today’s difficult economic environment. The live webinar will air at noon (CDT) on April 23 and can be accessed at
Following the April 23 airing, the webinar can be watched at
For more information, contact VanDeWalle at or (402)759-3712.
"Communicating With Farmers Under Stress" is a Nebraska Extension program intended to help agribusiness professionals as they meet and work with farmers and ranchers. The two-hour workshops, which will be held in five different locations across the state, will help build awareness around potentially stressful conditions some farmers are facing.
"The workshop will help participants identify stress triggers and signs of stress," Harris-Broomfield said. "Presenters also will talk about helpful techniques for responding to people under stress. Some farmers may struggle to effectively cope with stress, and presenters will talk about how to identify, approach and work with them. We’ll also provide information on where to turn for additional help and provide resources information for many different situations."
Dates and locations for the workshops will be released soon. For more information on the workshops, contact Harris-Broomfield at
Harris-Broomfield said machinery breakdowns, debt loads, volatile markets, sleep deprivation, changing regulations and the pressure to hold onto multi-generational farms are just some of the issues Nebraska’s farmers will deal with over coming weeks, months and years.
"Don’t be ashamed to reach out for help," she said. "All of these things impact us as much mentally as physically. We’re Nebraska Strong, but sometimes that might mean having the strength to reach out for help."
We are Nebraska Medicine and UNMC. Our mission is to lead the world in transforming lives to create a healthy future for all individuals and communities through premier educational programs, innovative research and extraordinary patient care.
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